New York Music Daily

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Wadada Leo Smith Puts Out Another Riveting Civil Rights Epic

It’s hard to think of a more consistently relevant artist in any style of music than trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith. Over the last seven years, he’s chronicled the Civil Rights Movement, celebrated the endangered ecology of our Great Lakes and National Parks, and suggested that we shouldn’t stop with occupying Wall Street: as the title of his 2013 album instructs, we ought to Occupy the World. His song cycle Rosa Parks: Pure Love. An Oratorio of Seven Songs – streaming at Spotify – is his most ambitious and often harrowing release since his epic 2012 Civil Rights era narrative Ten Freedom Summers. In general, this album is more atmospheric – and in that sense enveloping – maybe because it’s about a pivotal moment and the embryonic days of the movement it springboarded. Smith is playing a weeklong stand with a series of ensembles, including some of the artists on this album, at the Stone at the New School starting on June 25 at 8:30 PM; cover is $20.

As with Ten Freedom Summers, this album’s orchestration is lavish: Smith plays as part of the BlueTrumpet Quartet with Ted Daniel, Hugh Ragin and Graham Haynes, alongside the RedKoral string quartet and drummer Pheeroan akLaff. There are three singers: Karen Parks, Min Xiao-Fen and Carmina Escobar.

The opening instrumental prelude has a shattering, Shostakovian intensity: a horrified blaze of trumpets, sirening strings, disjointed anguish and yet, in the center of it all, a calm horn presenced which is probably Smith’s own portrayal of Parks’ determination to hold onto her seat and stand up for justice in the midst of assaults from all sides.

As the suspense mounts, there are keening highs over tense, expectant lows from the strings and slow exchanges with the brass. Maybe it’s the presence of Min Xiao-Fen and her spiky pipa, but the first vocal number, The Montgomery Bus Boycott has a big-sky Chinese pastoral vastness, a salute to solidarity and what it can accomplish.

Escobar’s fond but emphatic vocal matches the still sternness of the string quartet in The First Light, Gold, a shout-out to how Martin Luther King picked up the ball and ran with it after Rosa Parks got everything started. Vision Dance 2: Defiance, Justice and Liberation [Smith likes subtitles] is a slowly shifting tone poem for the whole ensemble plus samples from early works by Smith’s AACM collaborators Anthony Braxton on alto and Steve McCall on drums.

Parks sings Change It!, a soberingly poetic contemplation of democratic ideals clashing with reality, with an operatic intensity over mutedly pulsing and then resonant strings, akLaff flickering behind them. His majestically cynical, dismissive solo is sublime. Escobar takes the mic on The Truth, alternately spacious and insistent, then hands off to Min Xiao-Fen for No Fear, a hauntingly resonant setting of Rosa Parks’ own simple explanation of how she got up the courage to kick off a revolution.

More than a tinge of the macabre permeates the shivery, slowly unfolding Vision Dance 3: Rosa’s Blue Lake. Shalini Vijayan’s woundedly expressive viola solo introduces Min Xiao-Fen’s similarly moody vocal dramatics in The Second Light. Yet victory seems within reach as the trumpets enter in Vision Dance 4: A Blue Casa; slipsliding strings remind that it won’t be an easy task.

Parks sings the last of the songs, Pure Love, a celestially lingering look at the Greek concept of agape via MLK. Smith saves his most dynamic solo for The Known World: Apartheid amid disembodied string horror. The brief postlude seems like a Pyrrhic victory until akLaff deliciously gets the last word. This music is as rich and as troubling as the history it commemorates: like Ten Freedom Summers, you can get lost in it. Count this among the half-dozen best albums of the past several months.

Avant Garde All-Star Bass Clarinetist Ken Thomson Plays a Rare Greenpoint Gig

Ken Thomson plays reeds – mostly bass clarinet – in genre-defying art-rock/avant-rock icons the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Over the past couple of decades, he’s also led several other ensembles. His album Restless – an aply titled, troubled tour de force duo recording of two of his chamber works by allstar cellist Ashley Bathgate and pianist Karl Larson – is streaming at Bandcamp. That vinyl record makes a good listen if you’re considering his show tomorow night, June 16 at 5 PM at Arete Gallery where he’s leading his sextet on a twinbill with Larson’s indie classical trio Bearthoven. Cover is $15 – and the G train is running this weekend!

The album comprises two suites: Restless, nd MeVs,. The four-part, title partita rises from a wary, spare, fugal intertwine of cello and piano to an aching intensity and then an unexpectedly catchy, anthemic coda before fading down. The second movement, Forge is a study in contrasting leaps and bounds: the string jazz of Zach Brock comes to mind early on. Remain Untold is a relentleslsy uneasy stroll anchored by Larson’s low lefthand; then the piano and cello switch roles, rather savagely. Bathgate’s long, expressive, vibrato-tinged lines take centerstage over Larson’s mutedly minimal, resonant chords in the conclusion, Lost, building to an aching insistence punctuated by viscerally chilling glissandos from the cello.

MeVs, a triptych for solo piano, begins with Turn of Phrase, a practically rubato series of short, emphatic phrases amid extended pause that give it a glitchy feel. Quiet, calm, distantly Messiaenic resonance eventually prevails over the heavy whacks, slowly crescendoing with more than a hint of postbop jazz.

Part two, Another Second Try comes across as a more expansive remake of the famous Chopin E Minor Prelude, Larson runs steady eighth notes over surreal lefthand syncopation before the cruelling challenging, incisive series of staccato chords in the concluding segment kick in. Most definitely an album for our time.

The Da Capo Chamber Players Unveil a Stunningly Diverse, Global Mix of Sounds at Merkin Concert Hall

The Da Capo Chamber Players have an enviable track record performing a vast stylistic range of lesser-known works that deserve to be heard on a much wider scale. Wednesday night at Merkin Concert Hall, the theme was global.

The coda was a richly noir, relentlessly shifting narrative that frequently resembled Bernard Herrmann’s best work. But Reinaldo Moya‘s Cronica de una Muerta Anunciada was much more of a horror soundtrack than a suspense theme. The full ensemble – Steven Beck on piano, Chris Gross on cello, Curtis Macomber on violin, Patricia Spencer on flute, Nuno Antunes on bass clarinet and clarinet, and Michael Lipsey on vibraphone and percussion – reveled as much as  a group can revel in a story about a grisly murder. Fleeting quotes from a couple of familiar wedding themes appeared early on. before a couple of chase scenes and a sharp, stomping finale illustrating the savage public stabbing immortalized in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Aptly, a recurring, dancing riff for the violin and piano spelled out the name of the murder victim, Santiago Nasar, who’d been the illicit lover of a young woman in a rural Colombian village.

The opening piece – for cello, violin, flute and piano – was Chinary Ung‘s Child Song, interpolating several Asian modes around a lively pentatonic theme based on a surrealistic Cambodian nursery rhyme. The quartet wove a series of graceful exchanges punctuated by sudden dramatic bursts and a moody cello solo as the tonalities cleverly drifted further into western territory. Historically, this 1985 piece was a triumphant return to composition for Ung, who’d spent much of the previous ten years simply trying to stay alive in his native Cambodia while so many of his colleagues were murdered.

While Chou Wen-chung‘s Ode to Eternal Pine celebrates a Korean longevity archetype , it’s written in a western idiom. The ensemble rose from spacious, spare exchanges to a serene majesty in tribute to rugged mountaintop greenery, mysetrious ambience alternating with echo phrases and a sudden, striking coda.

Gabriela Lena Frank’s four-part suite Cuatro Bosquejos sent a shout out to now-vanished civilizations on the Peruvian and Colombian coast. Gross’ cello, in particular, stood out through acerbic chromatic passages in lively, shapeshifting depictions of an ancient, insistent group of flutists, the contrasting cascades in a portrait of a pre-Colombian man-bird, seaside calls into a desert wind, and a methodical disassembly of a panpipe-influenced tune.

Also on the bill were also a brief, elegant partita for solo flute by Noel Da Costa, and a persistently unsettled, steady, occasionally noirish Second Viennnese School trio for clarinet, violin and piano by Pablo Ortiz.

The New York Philharmonic Premiere David Lang’s Chillingly Relevant New Opera

David Lang has more contempt for a police state than he does for capital letters. That’s a lot. A sold-out audience last night were treated to the New York Philharmonic‘s world premiere of his sometimes allusively haunting, sometimes horrifyingly realistic new opera “enemy of the state” [all lowercase, as is the style throughout his catalog]. It’s easy to read Lang’s new take on the theme Beethoven followed in his lone opera, Fidelio, as a Julian Assange parable. Although with the iconic Wikileaks founder reportedly near death from mysterious causes in a British prison, he doesn’t seem to have anyone as willing amd able to spring him as the central prisoner’s wife is in Lang’s new magnum opus. It’s an important work for our time: $34 tickets are still available for tonight and tomorrow night’s 8 PM performances. You should see it.

Lang has always been an anomaly, a brilliant tunesmith in a field too often dominated by both pigheaded obscurantism and twee amateurishness. The music of this new work (Lang also wrote the lyrics) resembles the Hindustani-influenced art-rock of singer Peter Gabriel, the late 70s recordings of the rock band King Crimson at their most purposeful, and the anthemic, artsy side of 80s new wave, more than it recalls Beethoven. Strings and percussion dominate throughout. Late in the narrative, a trumpeter perched on one of the balconies will sound a particularly sardonic variation on an already cynical fanfare. The sheer gorgeousness of the vocal overlays and harmonies of singers Julie Mathevet, Eric Owens and Alan Oke offer cruelly sarcastic contrast with a relentlessly grim, profoundly philosophical narrative that quotes Arendt and Macchiavelli and coldly references Bentham on what the ideal prison should be.

How did maestro Jaap van Zweden tackle the music? Bouncing on his heels as he pulled subtle variations on Lang’s tersely expanding, cellular, Glass-ine themes from the orchestra, he validated every claim about his dedication to new music. Lang’s metrics are challenging, to say the least, and the conductor had those rhythms in his pocket. He was having as much fun as anyone can have leading an orchestra, choir and soloists through the story of a potentially averted execution (you will not find out here how it ends).

The acting is as strong as the singing. Mathevet’s tantalizingly brief flights upward are matched by a resolute presence (as in Fidelio, we are expected to believe that in costume she can pass for a boy, a real stretch). Owens is almost as imperturbable as a would-be Eichmann, just doing his job, but not 100% completely devoid of humanity. Oke, as prison honcho, exudes pure evil as coldblooded sociopath and executioner.

We never even get to see the titular Prisoner, played with depleted, almost-out-of-gas determination by Jarrett Ott, until the third movement. Nor do we ever learn why he’s behind bars – although, as the Jailer avers, he probably has powerful enemies. The difference between life behind bars and outside, as the Prisoner puts it, is that inside, you can see the bars. In this Hobbesian terror state, ruled by greed, corruption and (allusively) Instagram, the jailers are as much prisoners as those they watch over. And somebody’s always watching.

Behind the scenes, Donald Nally matched van Zweden for mastery of uncanny rhythms, leading the orange-clad prisoner choir personfiied by the many men of the Concert Chorale of New York. Elkhannah Pulitzer’s direction sets the stage aptly, with imaginative use of projections and a Guantanamo-like set. When van Zweden emerged from an unexpected entry point, he set off the lone flicker of laughter in this otherwise chillingly relevant retelling of an all-too-familiar story.;

Darkly Eclectic Composer Jay Vilnai Releases His Most Haunting Album

Guitarist Jay Vilnai is one of Brooklyn’s most individualistic, consistently interesting composers. Over the years, he’s led a fiery Romany-rock band, Jay Vilnai’s Vampire Suit and made acerbic chamber music out of Shakespearean poetry. He’s also the lead guitarist in another wild, popular Slavic string band, Romashka. His latest album, Thorns All Over – a collection of new murder ballads with text by poet Rachel Abramowitz, streaming at Bandcamp – is one of his best projects so far. In fact, it could be the most lurid, Lynchian indie classical album ever made. Vilnai is playing the album release show at Arete Gallery in Greenpoint on June 6 at 7 PM, leading a trio with violinist Skye Steele and singer Augusta Caso. Cover is $15.

The allbum’s Pinter-esque plotline follows a series of jump cuts. Likewise, the rhythms shift almost incessantly, enhancing a mood of perpetual unease. Vilnai layers eerily looping piano, desolately glimering tremolo guitar and evil, twinkling vibraphone up to a savage crescendo in the album’s opening track, The Lake: it’s all the more haunting for how quietly and offhandedly the narrator relates what happens along the shore that night.

Vilnai builds a skronky maze of counterpoint in tandem with Reuben Radding’s bass in A Woman or a Gun, a surreal mashup of what could be Ted Hearne indie opera, John Zorn noir soundtrack tableau and Angelo Badalamenti taking a stab at beatnik jazz.

“I took her to the dark forest to see if she would light the way,”Vilnai intones over gloomy pools of piano, as the band make their way into The Forest. A chamber ensemble of Skye Steele on violin, Oscar Noriega on clarinet, Ben Holmes on trumpet, Katie Scheele on English horn and David Wechsler on alto flute build a gently fluttering tableau, a sarcastic contrast with the story’s ugly foreshadowing.

A ghostly choir – Quince Marcum, Laura Brenneman and Jean Rohe – join in an echoing vortex behind Vilnai’s stately angst in Heartbreak. He layers grim low-register guitar, coldly starlit piano and enveloping atmospherics in the title track, up to a squirrelly mathrock crescendo amd slowly back down: this love triangle turns out to be a lot stranger than expected.

The album’s macabre final diptych is The Night We Met: Noriega’s moody clarinet rises over creepy, lingering belltones, Vilnai’s minimalist guitar lurking in the background. It concludes as a glacially waltzing dirge. Count this as one of this year’s most haunting and strangest records: you’ll see it on the best albums of 2019 page here in December.

Perennial Relevance, Irrepressible Wit and Catchy Tunes From Meredith Monk at the Jewish Museum

Thursday night at the Jewish Museum, Meredith Monk sang a playful, relentlessly catchy, perennially relevant mix of songs spanning over forty years. Now well into her seventies, the iconic composer still has the same clarity and purity in her upper register that she had back in the 1970s when she first came to prominence as a young lioness of the avant garde. Since then, just about every quirky songstress, from Laurie Anderson, to Bjork, to Carol Lipnik, owes her a shout for blazing the trail.

Monk always looks like the cat who ate the canary, an outward calm masking an inner delight that she can’t resist sharing. Her leaps and bounds and sudden rhythmic shifts seem more seamless – and easy to sing – than they actually are, considering what a brilliant tunesmith she is. Bright, kinetic melodies from throughout the show lingered long after it was over. She opened solo, a-cappella with Wa-li-oh, a 1975 number from her Songs from the Hill collection, where she’d literally gone to the mountaintop for the inspiration to write them. Its subtle echo effects may well have reflected that milieu.

She delivered similarly dappled, sunspotted pointillisms in a couple of other numbers: the Xosa-inflected Click Song, from 1988, and later in a series of brief pieces from last year’s suite of Cellular Songs, the final puckishly titled Lullaby for Leaves. By then, she’d been joined by two members of her Vocal Ensemble, Allison Sniffin and Katie Geissinger, tall blonde valkyries flanking the modestly dressed, slender bandleader. The two womens’ harmonies, frequent upward flights and command of Monk’s frequently challenging counterpoint were the icing on the cake.

The night’s most memorable number was Scared Song, for organ and vocals, its macabre undercurrent reflecting its response to Reagan-era fearmongering. “Fear becomes violence when we don’t know it’s fear,” she advised.

Another starkly relevant moment was when the trio sang Memory Song, from Monk’s dystopic 1984 suite The Games, a calmly surreal evocation from the point of view of a quasi-griot enumerating lost cultural references, from the essential to the ridiculous. That’s why Monk’s work has always had such resonance beyond the cutting edge: there’s always something funny to lighten even the darkest points.

Monk related how she’d recorded the bittersweetly circling Gotham Lullaby in 1975, solo on piano on her debut album, and felt like she’d botched the take. Producer Manfred Eicher told he it was fine – she could do another take if she felt like it, but he’d be going out for coffee while she did. And he was right, she demurred: there was magic in its imperfections, although her take this time out certainly didn’t seem to have any.

The most operatic moment of the night was a song from her 2006 Impermanence suite. The most trickily rhythnic was Waltz in 5’s, from 1996’s The Politics of Quiet. The most enigmatic was her own solo rendition of Happy Woman, from last year. Monk’s everywoman narrator seems on the surface to be perfectly content, but it turns out she’s also troubled in almost innumerable other ways. At face value, she maintained a resolute calm, but the turbulent undercurent cuoldn’t be masked. In an era when state legislatures are falling like dominoes to a lunatic misogynist fringe, that song couldn’t have had more of an impact.

This was it for this spring’s series of concerts at the Jewish Museum sponsored by the Bang on a Can organization, but they typically do an outdoor summer series at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City as well. Meanwhile, the Museum’s must-see Leonard Cohen exhibit will be up through Sept 8, and trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s noir cinematic trio Sexmob are there for free on June 11 at around 6 as part of this year’s Museum Mile Festival.

Marathon Microtonal Magic with Kelly Moran at Roulette

During the momentary pause midway through Kelly Moran‘s riveting, marathon parformance at Roulette Monday night, a handful of audience members went up on the balcony to peer into the concert grand piano she’d been playing. What had she done to get such magically eerie, bell-like, otherworldly pointillistic sounds out of that thing?

Moran never addressed the issue, emerging from the wings for the second half in a new outfit – switching out an airy linen dress for a slightly more fesitve black top and jeans. Had she detuned some of the strings? There were some suspicious coppery objects inside the piano, and people in the crowd were speculating whether she’d put tacks, or similar metal objects, on some of the hammers. And there were a couple of laptops involved. Whatever the case, Moran worked the keyboard hard as she swayed from side to side on the bench, a rugged individualist reveling in her own iminitable sound.

It was a torrentially gorgeous tour through Moran’s two latest albums, plus a lengthy suite of new material. Moran combines the uneasy belltones of Mompou with the Asian inflections and rhythmic complexity of Debussy while adding her own layers of microtonal mystery. She tackled six relatively short pieces from her botanically-themed Bloodroot album with an unexpected vigor. The album is on the delicate side; here, she raised the voltage, anchoring her meticulous, rhythmically perfect righthand articulation with graceful, sparse lefthand accents, a trope that would recur with even more intensity later on. While both the subtle circular shifts of Phlip Glass and the plaintiveness of Chopin seemed to be touchstones, the music was unmistakably Moran’s.

The two new, considerably longer pieces before the intermission were even more dynamic. There was a Glass-ine matter-of-factness in the methodical, outwardly rippling variations of the first two movements of Helix II, while the aptly titled Night Music brought to mind late Ravel.

The second half of the program was more electroacoustic, Moran playing along to videos of underwater imagery in tandem with prerecorded, synthesized orchestration that ranged from low drones to what seemed to be live sampling. Often that increased the psychedelic factor, spinning her celestial curlicues and spirals back kaleidoscopically, although as the thicket of sound grew more dense, it sometimes subsumed what Moran was actually playing. After the better part of two hours onstage, she finally closed with a stately, spacious, echoingly minimalist theme to send the crowd home on a rapt note.

Roulette continues to program the most exciting avant garde and 21st century music of any Brooklyn venue, while staying in touch with their roots in the loft jazz scene. Fans of largescale improvisational music and the AACM canon might want to swing by the memorial concert for the great saxophonist Joseph Jarman this Saturday, May 25 at 2 PM; admission is free with a rsvp.

Brooklyn Rider and Kinan Azmeh Play a Transcendent Coda to a Popular Upper West Side Concert Series

Over the last few years, the mostly-monthly Music Mondays concert series has become an Upper West Side institution. The level of classical talent they’ve been able to lure up to the corner of 93rd and Broadway rivals the programming at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center. The final night of this season on May 6, with paradigm-shifting string quartet Brooklyn Rider and haunting clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, was as transcendent as any in recent memory here. And that includes two separate, equally shattering occasions where the East Coast Chamber Orchestra played their towering arrangement of Shostakovich’s harrowing anti-fascist masterpiece, the String Quartet No. 8.

As they’re likely to do , Brooklyn Rider opened the night with a New York premiere, in this case Caroline Shaw‘s Schisma. With equal parts meticulousness and unbridled joy, the quartet – violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicolas – stood in a semicircle as they played. Maybe that configuration gave them a jolt of extra energy as they parsed the composer’s development of a series of cell-like phrases, spiced with fleetingly jaunty cadenzas and passages with an unselfconscious, neoromantic attractivness.

The world premiere of Jacobsen’s Starlighter, bolstered by Azmeh’s emphatic drive, was even more fun. The violinist explained to the sold-out crowd that it’s about photosynthesis, which came across as a genuinely miraculous, verdantly triumphant phenomenon. Its deft metamorphosis of riffs within a very traditional sonata architecture made a good pairing with Shaw’s work.

That the concert’s high point was not its centerpiece, a stunningly seamless perrformance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 speaks to the power of the entire program. Brooklyn Rider’s recorded version has a legato and a stamina that’s remarkable even in the rarified world of those who can play it on that level. But seeing it live drove home just how much of a thrill, and a challenge, it is to play. The contrasts between all the interchanging leaps and bounds and the rapt atmospherics of the adagio third movement, became all the more dramatic.

The highlight of the night was the world premiere of The Fence, the Rooftop and the Distant Sea, Azmeh’s duo piece for clarinet and cello. The composert told the crowd how he’d been inspired to write it from the rooftop of a Beirut building after fleeing his native Syria with his wife. It’s about memory, how it can fade and be reinvented, how tricky those reimagining can be – and how they haunt. Azmeh would look out over the ocean and convince himself that he could see his home turf in the far distance. As most exiles would, he clearly misses it terribly. The introduction had plaintively fluttering echoes of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time;. Later passages, for both the duo and each solo instrument, followed a plaintive trajectory that dipped with a murky, almost macabre cello interlude laced with sepulchral harmonics and ended as a poignant Arabic ballad.

All five musicians closed the show with a deliroius romp through Kayhan Kalhor‘s Ascending Bird. On album, with Kalhor playing kamancheh and joined by Brooklyn Rider, it’s a bittersweet, furiously kinetic escape anthem. Here, Azmeh taking Kahor’s place, it was more stark and resonant, even as the piece’s bounding echo effects and sudden, warily intense riffage coalesced.

Music Mondays’ fall season of free concerts typically begins in late September or early October; watch this space. Brooklyn Rider’s next concert is on May 31 at the Oranjewoud Festival in the Netherlands with legendary singer Anne Sofie von Otter. Azmeh’s next show is May 19 at 2 PM at First Presbyterian Church,,201 S  21st Street at Walnut St in Philadelphia with pianist Jean Schneider.

 

Psychedelic Middle Eastern-Flavored Improvisation and a Brooklyn Show by Nadah El Shazly

Multi-instrumentalist singer Nadah El Shazly isn’t the only musician to explore the connection between highly improvisational, classic Egyptian music and American free jazz, but she’s one of the most purposeful and distinctive. El Shazly’s latest release Carte Blanche – streaming at Bandcamp – is an ep featuring Lebanese improvisational ensemble Karkhana. She’s headlinng an intriguing twinbill on April 24 at around 9 at Brooklyn Music School at 126 St Felix St, up the block and around the corner from BAM. Stefan Tcherepnin and Taketo Shimada’s dirgey duo project Afuma open the night at 8. Cover is $20; be aware that if you’re coming from outside the neighborhood, the closest train, the G, is not running, but the Atlantic Ave. station is just around the corner.

The album opens with the allusively creepy Prends-moi un Photo Pendant Que Je Pleure (French for “Take a Picture of Me While I’m Crying”), a blend of loopy, high, bubbling textures with gamelanesque ripples and pings. In between, El Shazly’s otherworldly, tectonic vocalese and stark, surreal oud spike the midrange. The second track – whose title translates roughly as “Lift the Sidewalk, I Can’t Figure Out Where to Go From Here” – begins with a gentle, deft series of exchanges – more of that gamelesque twinkle, plus elegant guitar clang, buzzy synth, and a backward masking effect. From there, it grows more emphatically percussive and surreal. Imagine Carol Lipnik, tied and muzzled, in a Cairo funhouse mirror.

The English translation of the title of the final cut is In My Mouth, Another Mouth, an electroacoustic trip-hop number with disembodied vocals and pulsing, insectile layers arranged around a simple, echoey sample. While there’s nothing distinctly Middle Eastern about the melody, such that there is one, remember that trip-hop is a rai beat that originated in Tunisia. El Shazly, an erudite oudist with a passion for early 20th century Egyptian improvisation, would probably want something like that to be acknowledged.

 

Alex Weiser Resurrects a Brilliantly Obscure Tradition of Jewish Art-Song

If you had the good fortune to work at an archive as vast as the YIVO Institute, as composer Alex Weiser does, wouldn’t you explore it? Weiser went deep, and here’s an example of what he found:

Wheel me down to the shore
Where the lighthouse was abandoned
And the moon tolls in the rafters

Let me hear the wind paging through the trees
And see the stars flaming out, one by one
Like the forgotten faces of the dead

I was never able to pray
But let me inscribe my name
In the book of waves

And then stare into the dome
Of a sky that never ends
And see my voice sail into the night

Edward Hirsch wrote that poem; Weiser set it to music, along with eight other texts, on his new album And All the Days Were Purple (streaming at Bandcamp). Tuesday night at YIVO’s comfortable ground-floor auditorium,  an allstar sextet of 21st century music specialists – singer Eliza Bagg, pianist Daniel Schlossberg, violinist Hannah Levinson, violist Maya Bennardo, cellist Hannah Collins and vibraphonist Michael Compitello – played an allusively harrowing take of what Weiser made out of that Hirsch text, along with four other tersely lustrous compositions. That particular number was assembled around a plaintive bell motif; the other works on the bill shared that crystalline focus.

The premise of Weiser’s album looks back to a largely forgotten moment in Russia in 1908 where a collective of Jewish composers decided to make art-song out of folk tunes. Much as composers have been pillaging folk repertoire for melodies and ideas for hundreds of years, it’s refreshing to see that Weiser has resurrected the concept…and a revelation to see what he managed to dig up for texts.

In addition to a swirling, cleverly echoey, suspensefully horizontal instrumental interlude, the group worked starry, hypnotic variations on an ascending theme in Longing, a barely disguised erotic poem by Rachel Korn. My Joy, with text by Anna Margolin – born in 1887, eleven years before Korn – was much more bitter than sweet, a lament for an unfulfilled life. And the simply titled Poetry, a setting of a deviously innuendo-fueled Abraham Sutzkever poem, was rather stern and still – it’s the closest thing to an art-rock ballad as the album has.

For the concert, Weiser also created new arrangements of a handful of songs from the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, with a similar stylistic sweep. A lullaby credited to Lazare Saminsky – who would go on to become music director at New York’s Temple Emmanu-El – and a rueful emigre’s lament by Alexander Veprik were allusively assembled around the kind of gorgeous chromatics and biting minor keys most of us tend to associate with Jewish themes. But a 1923 message to the diaspora by Joel Engel, another member of that circle, and a Saminsky setting of the Song of Songs, were more comfortably atmospheric. And the group took Weiser’s chart for a 1921 Moses Milner lullaby to unexpected heights on the wings of the strings. After the show, the audience filtered out for a mostly purple-colored food to celebrate the album’s release: honey-ginger cake from Russ and Daughters, who knew?

In addition to his work as a composer, Weiser is in charge of public programs at YIVO. The next musical performance is May 1 at 7 PM, with pianist Ted Rosenthal‘s jazz opera Dear Erich, inspired by his grandmother Herta’s letters from Nazi-occupied Germany to her son, who’d escaped to the US after Kristallnacht but was unable to get his parents out. Advance tickets are $15 and highly recommended.